Mark Webber: Moving Up to Le Mans

There are two very high profile names returning to the Le Mans 24 Hours in 10 days time. One is Porsche, with all of its history, records and baggage. The other… well, the other is Mark Webber, who you may have heard of. Speed Chills View speak to the F1 graduate about sketchy memories, changing class and the romance of Le Mans.

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All the world’s press seem to have gathered in a small, bare room above the Porsche pit garages at the Circuit de la Sarthe. They’re here to catch a glimpse of a rather famous jaw, seemingly chiseled out of sandstone, that belongs to a rather famous Australian man.

Webber, fresh from a small job in the PR department of an energy drinks company, has finally made it back to the big leagues. His last visit was, as he says, a lifetime ago; a stint with the factory Mercedes team that ended upside down and midair. It’s not something he thinks about, apparently:

“It was 16 years ago so It's incredible what comes back to you and what doesn’t; I can't even remember what the entrance to the pits was like! I think the memories and the emotions will return when I start driving but I always enjoy it here, it's a great track.”

This time around he arrives at the Circuit de la Sarthe as a gritty veteran rather than a bright eyed youth. At the point in his career where many drivers would have called it a day, Mark decided to deal with some unfinished business: “Porsche and I were in touch for a long time and when they rung me up it would’ve been difficult to say no!”

“Driving for them is an honour, with the burden of their history and 16 wins. Their racing philosophy is extremely genuine too; it’s old school passion and precision, they love testing themselves in the toughest environments.”

On the scale of 1 to tough environments Le Mans definitely ranks near the top. Porsche’s new 919 Hybrid prototypes have to be flawless for two laps of the clock; any error within the car, behind the wheel or back on the pit wall can scupper their chances at a race which is famously unforgiving:

“It's busy and you need to be organised, but it's the same for everybody and that's the way it is now. Audi and Toyota have a lot more experience than us so we need to do the simple things well and not get too fancy at the moment.”

“But I love the team component of it, the fact that it’s not just about you. You all have to contribute and work really hard to get the car through the whole week. It also means that you don’t get over analysed for everything; I had that for so many years and now it’s just about the team and everyone contributing”

It’s clear (and understandable) that even after all the testing, set up work and two 6 Hour rounds of the World Endurance Championship he’s still suffering from a little F1 jet lag. Adapting to a new class of car is a difficult thing to do, especially so when you’ve spent 15 years in whiny single seaters:

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“The things you notice are that the car is a lot heavier, which you really feel as a racing driver, and that the sensation of speed is really high because you’re sat behind a windscreen. So far I've been a bit better on the tracks which I have no experience on like Aragon, Portimao and Paul Ricard, just because at the F1 tracks you’ve been hard wired into the F1 mentality.”

“At Le Mans I've got a clean slate, there's no Formula 1 in my head. I wasn't slow at Spa or Silverstone but it was a bit more of an effort for me in the first five or six laps to accept what the car should do rather than what I want it to do. It takes a bit of time.”

And that time is precious. When he steps into the car for his first stint next Saturday he’ll only have a few hours of recent sports car racing experience to help him along. Getting settled in to a new team or a new car is always going to be difficult, but heading straight for the top of a class you haven’t driven in for so long? Mark’s task won’t be easy.

There’s one thing that’s much less of a chore for him, though: “I love driving at night, you feel really independent, really remote, it's just you and the car and your senses are alive because there's less visibility, your hearing and everything is more dramatic. It's a nice romantic touch that you don't get in Formula 1.“

As a ‘rookie’ Mark was required to prove his credentials to the organisers by completing a session in the simulator and putting in a ten lap stint at the Test Day. Some might say this was unnecessary for a man with his record; he summarises it as “good PR for the simulator”.

Despite the odd entry criteria the new-car mountain he had to climb, you can tell he’s an old hand at this. Webber is the calm eye in a storm of flapping journos, and even though he’s made the move to the less stressful climate of endurance racing he’s not lost the grit for which he’s famous.

But he does seem genuinely enthused, both to have his new prototype challenge and to be back at Le Mans: “The romance of the 24 is massive, it’s one of the most famous racing events in the world. OK, Formula 1 has the quickest cars but this category, with Porsche, Audi, Toyota, Nissan coming in… the coming years are going to be very exciting.”

Before we leave him to the forest of microphones jostling for position near his face he says something that leaves us feeling like, just maybe, he might know what he’s doing after all: “It feels like we’ve got a long way to go until the race but the time will go really quickly.”

“Our job is to make sure that we live up to the Porsche name, and maybe even give the 919 some of its own history.”

Jamie Snelling is a freelance motorsports journalist and 10-time Speed Chills veteran. Tweet him @speedchillsview